August 31st, 2009

movie popcorn

Water, water everywhere

Went to see Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo last night. It’s definitely worth it to see it on the big screen. It’ll look OK on a home screen, but the lushness and detail of the animation and colors are amazing in the theater.

Ponyo has its own distinct look, I felt the wonderment like I did when I first saw The Point, Yellow Submarine, or Fantastic Planet. The undersea portions are trippy and psychedelic; the portions on land are done in a more pastoral and storybook style – and when the two worlds cross, as they do during a spectacular storm sequence, the results are breathtaking.

These stills, which I ran as large as I could, still do not do justice to the film, because water is in almost every scene of the film, and everything is constantly in motion – not just waves and currents, but swirling hair and clothing, and often dozens and dozens of sea creatures in every frame. The rendering of the water is spectacular, whether stylized storm swells or the translucency of a steaming bowl of ramen.

It’s by no means a perfect movie, and will not be considered as much of a classic as some of his earlier films, at least by Western audiences. There are many close-ups of the sweet, large-headed and minimally-featured children’s faces (like you see on many Japanese products for children). The friendship between the young boy and girl reminded me of the brother-sister relationship in Grave of the Fireflies, and there’s also a sequence that’s an extended hat-tip to W. Eugene Smith’s famous “The Walk to Paradise Garden” photograph.

There are several sequences where the movie is overly reverential to the source material (completely unfamiliar to Western audiences), to the detriment of pacing, although there’s still a fair amount of the mysterious supernatural and fantastic elements that Miyazaki is known for that keeps the story from being a saccharine children’s tale.

And I totally hated the soundtrack, which is a pastiche of 80 different soundtracks you’ve heard before, including a version of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Japanese pop culture movies often have strange soundtracks – even serious drama, sci-fi, and horror films will have some silly, incongruous pop song over the closing credits. Ponyo opens with a pretentious opera-like aria, and has the silliest Japanese pop song ever over the closing credits.

Those things aside, it was still a spectacular and lovely movie to see. Scene after scene in the movie reminded me just how much I’ll miss hand-drawn animation when it finally goes away. Although several of the upcoming animated movies seen in the coming attractions – all computer-assisted design if not completely digitally rendered – looked interesting and attractive, none of them can hold a candle (of any size) to Miyazaki’s work.